Thursday 21 November 2013

Roderick Williams - The Composer

Britten Sinfonia’s Development Assistant, Gabrielle Deschamps talked to esteemed baritone Roderick Williams about his second discipline, composing, and his views on new music.

Please summarise yourself in one sentence:
I’m Roderick Williams, I’m probably better known as a singer than I am as a composer, and I am an operatic baritone, recitalist, and sometime composer.

What do you like about music and singing?
The thing about singing is that you get to take part directly in the music, there’s no instrument, there’s no interface. It’s just something that you do when you’re alone in the bath or in the shower… Singing is primal in that way. And I really enjoy the physical feeling it gives me. And when I’m performing with other people I enjoy the communication part of it too. I enjoy being able to see an immediate effect in people’s eyes as I am telling a story, or whatever it is I happen to be doing.

What inspires you?
I’m inspired, I think, by fantastic music – of course one is bombarded with music all the time. Whether I’m in rehearsals or just driving in the car with the radio on, there’s always music coming at me and I find a great deal of it inspiring. I find also less good music inspiring, because that makes me want to compose. I hear something and I think “Oh I could do better than that, or I’ll have a go at that”! And equally I find performing and listening to masterworks a little intimidating and I wonder how I could ever follow in the steps of such masterworks… But at least I try!

What are your feelings about new music and what we’re trying to do with Musically Gifted?
I perform a great deal of new music. Some of it I find very exciting, some of it has a reaction with an audience that I hadn’t imagined. Sometimes I can underestimate a piece or a composer’s power. This is the composer’s part of me, with my composer’s hat on - I can sometimes look at a piece and think it doesn’t amount to much and be unaware than when it comes to the performance, it really has muscle. So I’ve learned quite a bit from that.

As for the Musically Gifted scheme, having performed so many premieres, either of songs or maybe even taking part in operas, it’s always exciting for me to have my name as the first performer on the score. It’s a little moment of pride for me there, having my name written down. In the same way that I perform some masterworks from the last fifty to a hundred years, I see the names of previous baritones and I love to think that I’m part of that line. And so it is with dedications, you see a piece that’s been commissioned by a huge symphony orchestra paid for by some huge corporation and then there’s a dedication at the top of the score that might be something very special and personal, and maybe isn’t immediately apparent when you first look at the score. They all have stories and that’s quite intriguing. And you often see in programme notes the story explained of who “Bill” happens to be… There’s something quite romantic about dedications, and when I get a chance to dedicate my own pieces I also send little messages to people; little votes of thanks here and there.

Is composing something that you want to be more recognised for?
It’s a little difficult because I think a lot of composers have an eye on immortality and I wouldn’t begin to imagine that my music would be anything more than functional in a way. And if it achieves anything beyond my time that’s all well and good, but I’ve got my eyes on the moment, as a performer. I like my music to get an airing rather than writing huge numbers of string quartets and symphonies that I store in a cupboard to be discovered on my death and then for me to reign supreme. Somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen! So I’m very interested in the way performers shape pieces, and part of the way I write now is I allow a performer a great deal of input into my music and how it should go, in the hope that each performance is different and in the hope that performers can take my music and make it their own. So I don’t prescribe utterly how it should go, with exact markings on how every millisecond should sound because I think you might as well present people with a definite recording and say “that is it, set in stone”. I think that’s a shame.
It would be lovely to be known as anything actually! My mum knows who I am…

What was your reaction when Britten Sinfonia commissioned you?
Commissions are always very exciting because it shows that someone somewhere has really listened and enjoyed something that I’ve done, and found it worthy. With my singing career, I’m happy to take criticism, good or bad, I feel reasonably confident that I know what I’m doing. Now, in composition it’s entirely separate, and it’s much more like my own baby, my own child, and I am much more worried about reaction to it and people’s perception of it - desperate for encouragement. So just the fact that, not just anybody but an orchestra that has as much pedigree in modern music as Britten Sinfonia, should want to commission me, I find terribly exciting.

What’s your musical guilty pleasure?
I love harmony. Harmony really inspires me, I particularly love jazz harmonies. I enjoy jazz and pop. I love having the radio on and just not knowing what’s going to come up next. And I’m as likely to be moved to tears by a bit of Marvin Gay as I am by a bit of Mahler. So I don’t know if that’s guilt or not but whatever sort of music it is, if it speaks to me, it goes deep.

How do you relax?
The thing that helps me relax a lot is walking. The tricky thing for me is that there’s always going to be some sort of music playing in my head. This German idea of the Ohrwurm – the piece of music that just keeps going round and round. The worst thing is that it’s quite likely to be a really naff tune that gets stuck in there. This is why I often have the radio on. Radio 4 so that people can talk to me, or music that I’m not in control of; someone else’s playlist going round. But the idea of getting outside and walking in nature, I love that! That’s how I relax. Wherever I am in the world, if I can, I get the chance to get out of my hotel, out of the arts centre, and get out into the hills – that’s what I love doing.

If you hadn’t been a musician, what might have happened?
That’s a very difficult question to answer because in a previous life I was a music teacher before I started my career as a singer, but it still has the word music in it. So if I’d just been a teacher I don’t know what I would have taught.

Any other passions?

That I could turn into a job?! You see the problem with that is that everything I do at the moment I do because I really enjoy it, and the fact that people are happy to pay me for it is a wonderful bonus. But if you ask me what I’d be doing if it wasn’t for music and it was a profession, then I’m a bit stuck! No – when my career is over I’ll come back to you and answer that one!

Is there anything else you want to share with the world? About you, music, politics or anything?

What’s in my heart that I’d like the world to know? That is tricky. I think the easiest way to answer that is sort of an advert, because the best way to get an answer to that is to listen to my music, or if not that you should listen to me singing other people’s music. Because I can’t give an answer to that question without sounding glib. The only way I can do that is musically, that’s the only realm where I’m comfortable to answer that question!

You can help commission Roderick William’s new work through the Musically Gifted campaign. Click here for more information.

Roderick Williams’ new work will be performed in the following At Lunch 2 concerts in 2014:

NORWICH – Assembly House - 31 January
LONDON – Wigmore Hall - 5 February at Wigmore Hall
SAFFRON WALDEN – Saffron Hall - 9 February
CAMBRIDGE – West Road Concert Hall - 11 February

Click here for more information, and keep an eye on our Facebook and Twitter pages for an announcement of the name of the new work.

This blog is a transcript of an interview by Gabrielle Deschamps (Britten Sinfonia Development Assitant) with Roderick Williams

Thursday 14 November 2013

Curlew River - A Review

(c) Netia Jones / Lightmap

Over the course of the Barbican Britten celebrations, Britten Sinfonia is delighted to be taking such a major role with performances across four of the Barbican’s performance spaces. Last week we performed with tenor Ian Bostridge and conductor Paul Daniel in Britten’s Our Hunting Fathers in the Barbican Hall and collaborated with Richard Alston Dance Company in the premier of new choreographic works to Britten’s Phaedra and Sechs Hölderin Fragmente alongside Lacrymae and Les Illuminations.

This week I was lucky enough to go along to the dress rehearsal of one of Britten’s operas, Curlew River which is being presented in three sell-out performances at St Giles’ Cripplegate on 14, 15 and 16 November 2013. The opera was originally premiered nearly 50 years ago at St Bartholomew’s Church in Orford, Suffolk and is set in the East Anglian Fenland, an area very close to Britten’s heart.

The original inspiration for the opera comes from an ancient Japanese noh play, translated into a Christian parable and libretto by William Plomer. Directed by Netia Jones, the production this week stays true to the medieval setting in terms of costume, but is treated to some simple but effective lighting, projections and set.

Most iconic is the way that the projections interact with the character of the Madwoman, played by tenor, Ian Bostridge (a role which was originally performed by Britten’s lifelong companion, Peter Pears in the opera’s 1964 premiere). A tall figure dressed from head to toe in black, the character’s madness is portrayed through the splashes she makes on the projections of grass, and the way in which the ‘Curlews of the Fenland’ circle about her. The vocal lines of the Madwoman slide between notes in a manic way, frequently mimicked by the other characters and chorus.

Musically, the opera is a work for a seven part chamber ensemble, and in this production the vocalists are directed from the chamber organ by William Lacey. The other instruments are also assigned specific points in the score in which to lead, something which is particularly suited to Britten Sinfonia’s usual performance style, of playing unconducted.

Benjamin Britten used Japanese influences within the score, and this can be heard a lot in the percussion section; the signature ‘bouncing ball’ rhythm featuring at different instrumental sections and the use of gongs and un-tuned drums. Also common in Japanese music is the use of heterophony (the same musical line being repeated with different tempi and rhythms at the same time) and this is used by Britten in sections where he wants to make the chorus sound like they are chattering.

Overall the narrative of the opera is a simple one: A year after losing her 12 year old son and torn by grief and madness, a mother goes looking for him, taking a ferryboat across Curlew River. Whilst on the ferryboat, the ferryman tells a story of a young boy who was kidnapped and took the boat a year ago. The boy fell ill and died in the village on the other side of the river and was buried in the local chapel. On realising that the boy was her son, the mother visits the chapel in despair, prays to her son, and his ghost returns to reassure her that they will meet once again in heaven one day.

The three Curlew River performances are now sold out, but you can still visit Curlew River Echo, a free audio-visual installation in St Giles’ Cripplegate, taking place on 15 & 16 November 2013.

Listen to Netia Jones, William Lacey and Ian Bostridge talk about Curlew River in a Barbican Britten Podcast

The final performance in our Barbican Britten Series, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, will take place on 24 November 2013 at Milton Court. Prior to this, this programme also tours to Norwich on Sunday 17 November and Cambridge on Friday 22 November. Click here  for more information and to book tickets.

Lisa Buckby 
Marketing Assistant

Monday 4 November 2013

Sally Beamish on composition

The Britten Sinfonia At Lunch series begins in December with At Lunch 1 and in addition to works by Mozart, Lutosławski and Fauré, we will hear a new work from Sally Beamish, co-commissioned by Britten Sinfonia and Wigmore Hall. We talk to Sally about what it’s like to be a composer and where she gets her inspiration from.

Please describe yourself in one sentence.

I’m a composer living in Scotland and I was a viola player for ten years in London but have always composed since I was 4 years old.

You were a performing musician and became a composer, tell us more…
I’ve always written music, since before I learned to read and write. My mother taught me to read and write music when I was 4 and in fact when I started piano lessons a year later I was quite indignant to have someone else’s music put in front of me so I wrote my own piano book ‘How to play the piano’. I felt that playing was terribly important as well and I studied the viola and managed to get into playing contemporary music in London. By doing that, I met a lot of composers who were working for groups like the London Sinfonietta and they helped me with scores which was fantastic. I think that’s something that’s always informed my music; I’m very aware of how it feels to play a new piece and the first reaction on seeing the notes on the page. Writing for strings is something that I understand from the inside so I’m very excited to be doing this piece.

What can you tell us about the piece you are writing for Britten Sinfonia?
Writing a piece for string trio is the bare bones of string writing. Like three legs is the minimum for a chair to stand up. You need those three parts, the top, middle and bottom. What tends to happen is that the viola player ends up almost playing two parts. If you look at Beethoven’s string trio, for instance, the viola part is really quite complex, holding it together from the inside.

As you are a violist yourself, do you find you write differently for that instrument?

I don’t think I’m consciously aware of writing differently for the viola, but I often do find that at significant points in the score I’ve given a solo to the viola, or I’ve written something for the viola section, I might open a piece with the viola. I’m not actually conscious of doing that but I think it is a special voice for me.

What inspires you?
I’m often inspired by extra-musical ideas so for instance landscape, words or maybe a poem. My violin concerto is based on ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, a First World War novel and often paintings and dance have come into my music. Also, what I find very inspiring is other types of music, and living in Scotland has very often influenced my music because the culture of Scottish music is so strong and you’re so aware of it all the time.

Please tell us more about music in Scotland.

The first thing I noticed when I moved to Scotland is how strong the culture is, you’re surrounded by Scottish music in a way that I was never aware of in England. It’s a living form in Scotland. It’s quite cool for a teenager to go to a ceilidh for instance. Everyone’s there and it’s not something that defines your age at all. The forms of Scottish music are very strong as well and instantly recognisable and a very good basis. The variation form pibroch with the Scottish bagpipes is something I’ve used a lot in my work.

Does knowing the musician who will perform your piece affect your writing at all?
It’s great to know the players beforehand because then I immediately have their individual sound in my head. For instance, I’ve known Jackie Shave’s playing for years and years and years, and immediately I start to hear her playing when I start thinking about the piece I think of Jackie playing the piece. So that’s very exciting and very inspiring.

If you hadn’t been a musician and composer, what would you have been?
I don’t remember a time when composing wasn’t what I was going to do, but I do a lot of other things as well. I write short stories and poems and I’ve learned a lot from going to writers groups. Showing a poem to a group of people immediately generates lots of ideas because everyone feels comfortable with words. Whereas as a composer it’s much more difficult because you can’t really show your work to anyone in the same way until it’s in front of the players and then it’s too late to change it. So it’s quite an isolated way to work. I paint as well, and when I’m starting a new piece of music I very often think in terms of making a pencil sketch or an architect’s drawing of the shape of the piece before I start to colour it. Those sort of parallels are quite helpful.

What is your musical guilty pleasure?

I’m interested in all sorts of music, my sons are both involved in rock and pop music and we’ve done some projects together. I have huge admiration for those genres because the creators of it use their ears so much and everything is so immediate. That’s helped me a lot in my own workings out because as a classical composer you spend a lot of time looking at a page and working your systems out and actually just to let go of that and to improvise is a wonderful feeling.

Who would you like to work with?
I’ve been working a lot with Brandford Marsalis, a jazz saxophone player, and I’ve learned a lot from him and his way of working. And he also works with my classical music, so he’s played two of my saxophone concertos, which he calls songs, which I think is lovely!

What do you want to achieve within the next five years?
The thing that I’ve always wanted to do is to write for dance, and that’s something that hasn’t really happened until just recently. I was commissioned to write a ballet for the Birmingham Royal Ballet so that’s something I’ll be doing in 2016 and I’m looking forward to that hugely. I think all the music I write up to then is likely to be related to that feeling of dance. So I think the string trio will definitely be something that links in with that beginning to think about movement and drama as well.

On Commissioning
I think it’s fantastic that Britten Sinfonia has such a lively approach to commissioning new music through it's Musically Gifted programme. Of course, new music has to be part of the musical spectrum; the composers of today are the classics of tomorrow. As a composer, the more that you’re given to work with, the less scary it is. If a commissioner comes to you with an idea that’s a real challenge it’s very inspiring.

On New Music
It’s always nice when there’s something new in a concert, I’d always be more inclined to go to a concert if there’s a new piece. After all, 200 years ago people more or less only heard new music. They would go to concerts and hear the latest thing that had been written. Maybe it was The Magic Flute, and that would be the pantomime to take the kids to. We go to the latest music theatre piece, but with classical music there’s a little reticence from audiences that they may not understand. But actually I think that you can hugely engage with a new piece of music. Young people in particular seem to engage more readily with new music than perhaps they might do with Eine Kleine Nacht Musik where it doesn’t speak to them directly.

At Lunch 1 takes place on 11 December at Wigmore Hall, on 13 December at the Assembly House, Norwich and on 17 December in West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge. For more information and to book tickets, click here.

For more information on Britten Sinfonia's Musically Gifted campaign click here

This blog is a transcript of an interview by Gabrielle Deschamps (Britten Sinfonia Development Assitant) with Sally Beamish.